Taliban attack Afghan army bases, throwing peace talks into doubt

by Emal HAIDARY
Intra-Afghan negotiations are due to begin March 10 according to a US-Taliban deal signed in Doha on Saturday

The Taliban carried out dozens of attacks on Afghan army bases, officials said Tuesday, hours after ending a partial truce and throwing into doubt peace talks between Kabul and the insurgents.

The intra-Afghan negotiations are due to begin March 10 according to a US-Taliban deal signed in Doha on Saturday, but a dispute over a prisoner swap has raised questions about whether they will go ahead.

The agreement includes a commitment for the Taliban to release up to 1,000 prisoners and for the Afghan government to free around 5,000 insurgent captives -- something the militants have cited as a prerequisite for talks but which President Ashraf Ghani has refused to do before negotiations start.

The row has highlighted the tough road ahead, with the Taliban's decision to end a partial truce Monday complicating matters further.

In the last 24 hours the Taliban conducted 33 attacks in 16 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said.

"As a result, six civilians were killed and 14 wounded. Eight enemy were also killed, 15 wounded," he said on Twitter.

Two soldiers were killed in one of the attacks in southern Kandahar province, a government statement said.

An attack in Logar province near Kabul killed five security forces, the provincial governor's spokesman Didar Lawang told AFP.

The halt to the limited truce, which began on February 22, ends what was a welcome reprieve for ordinary Afghans who have born the brunt of the deadly violence.

But experts said the move was unsurprising as both sides seek to exploit whatever leverage they hold to force the other's hand.

"Of course violence will go up, was bound to happen. no surprise Ghani balking on prisoner release: 1 of his few levers," Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tweeted.

Kabul-based analyst Ahmad Saeedi told AFP the uptick in attacks reflected the insurgents' belief that "they have to keep the battlefield hot to be able to win on the negotiating table, as they did with the Americans."

- 'So far, so good' -

Ghani's government last week sent a delegation to Qatar to open "initial contacts" with the insurgents but Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen on Tuesday said the militants would not meet Kabul's representatives except to discuss the release of their captives.

Apparent differences between the Doha agreement and a joint US-Afghan declaration released in Afghanistan underline the obstacles facing negotiators.

The US-Taliban deal committed to the release of prisoners while the Kabul document only required both sides to determine "the feasibility of releasing" captives.

In a statement, the UN's Afghanistan mission called for "continued reduced violence to maintain & enhance an environment conducive to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations".

Since the deal signing, the Taliban have been publicly claiming "victory" over the US.

Speaking to Fox News, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played down the militants' comments.

"So I've seen lots of remarks. Just watch what really happens. Pay less attention to statements, pay less attention to things people say," Pompeo said.

"Watch what happens on the ground. There's been a lot of work done at detailed levels about how this will proceed. So far, so good."

Under the terms of the deal, foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and a pledge by the insurgents to hold talks with Kabul.

"After the US-Taliban deal, it is illogical to fight. It is time for peace," said Naqibullah, a 40-year-old government employee in Kabul, who uses only one name.

"The Taliban can't take the whole nation hostage."

Intra-Afghan negotiations are due to begin March 10 according to a US-Taliban deal signed in Doha on Saturday